Leonard Cohen performs live at Het Muziektheater in Amsterdam, Netherlands on April 18 1988. Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

Hallelujah: in the church of Leonard Cohen

An excerpt from David Cohen’s Book of Cohen, featuring Steve Braunias and musings on erotic salvation.

“Just listen to that,” Steve Braunias says to me. It’s 1987 and we’re having lunch at the Cricketer’s Arms, a Wellington pub. Steve, a fellow music writer, rarely looks so good at this time in the day — or as bad, depending on your politics. Same with me. We are serious young music reviewers.

He puts down his fork and asks, “What’s going on with her?” What he’s talking about are the words floating out of the pub’s stereo system. The woman is belting out what sounds like a standard pop song, all peppy beats and guitar feints. The packaging in no way prepares you for the lyric packed below: Lines about twenty years of boredom. Changing the system from within. Drugs that keep you thin.

“First We Take Manhattan” comes to sound like the first song about terrorism ever to make it onto a Wellington radio station. As Leonard Cohen later explains about the song he wrote in 1981: “I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the material plane. I don’t really enjoy the terrorist activities. But psychic terrorism. I remember there was a poem by Irving Layton that I once read. I’ll paraphrase: ‘Well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there,’ he says. ‘But our terrorists. Jesus. Freud. Marx. Einstein. The whole world is still quaking …'”

The voice belongs to Jennifer Warnes, who first sang backup on Cohen’s 1972 and 1979 tours. She has just released an album of Cohen covers, Famous Blue Raincoat. They could have called it Jenny Sings Lenny. Or Jenny Sings Ronnie, because Ronald Reagan sits on the Oval Office throne and everything in that particular song sounds like the spurious political times.

“First We Take Manhattan”, especially composed for the project, leads the collection. Along with Cohen himself, Warnes’ sidekicks include Van Dyke Parks, Stevie Ray Vaughan (the guy pounding out those sizzling guitar jabs), bassist Roscoe Beck and others — all bringing to the canvas the passion of portraitists painting the one paramour.

Steve and I already know this from having read the press releases. Keeping our ears open for new sounds is something we are both learning about: album reviewing is the strange racket we’re involved in.

The smoky tavern where we are sitting, a brutal modernist concrete affair, bears witness to the musical activity of the 1980s. It regularly hosts shows by the likes of the Chills, the Clean and Paul Kelly. The Go-Betweens, who sound more like Leonard Cohen fanciers each time they slouch into the New Zealand capital, sometimes play here as well. Partly on account of the Cohen connection, I always make a point of doing interviews with this particular band’s two co-singer-songwriters, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster, whenever they are in town, including one offbeat hotel room conversation in the local Port Nicholson hotel for the local Dominion newspaper in which Robert is attired only in a bath robe. The interview feels weird, but not on account of Robert’s lack of clothing, which just seems part of the thing he has at the time for eye-catching media interludes. It’s something about the hotel that I can’t quite put a finger on. Only much later do I learn that the establishment also happens to be owned by my father.

Across town there is the Union Theatre, where the Go- Betweens also play, along with the Jesus & Mary Chain, whom I endure one night while seated next to Shayne Carter, whose review of Various Positions I have read and enjoyed in the monthly music paper Rip It Up.

“There will be more,” Carter replies enigmatically, lighting a cigarette.

Actually, there probably will be less if Cohen’s distributors at CBS have anything to do with it. In what may have been one of the biggest music business blunders since Sam Phillips sold Elvis Presley’s contract to “Colonel”  Tom Parker for a mere $40,000 — a miscalculation that probably cost him billions — the company famously takes exception to “Hallelujah” when it was first surfaces on Various Positions in 1984. It has limited commercial appeal, they say. CBS withdraws much of the publicity budget, and soon razors the whole album from the US market.

Shortly after the release (and disappearance) of Various Positions, I visit the old CBS headquarters in Falcon Street, Auckland, and put the question to one of the company’s big shots.

“What about Leonard Cohen?” I ask.

“What about King?” he yelps.

King — not to be confused with The King (as in Elvis) or Prince — is at the time a subject of considerable excitement at CBS, and around the time of Various Positions is chewing up a lion’s share of the promotional budget earmarked for the then all-important television campaigns. An English band that arose from the ashes of a Coventry group known as the Reluctant Stereotypes, King is named for the singer Paul King, who sports a mullet haircut, spray-painted Doc Marten’s and a splashy if forgettable voice that burbles to the surface through aimless sonic slop. Despite the advertising splurge, the reconstituted group goes on to enjoy one moderately successful song, “Love & Pride”, which peaks at number 55 on the US charts, and still lower on the New Zealand hit parade.

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

All this is worth mentioning, because as many people today have never heard of King as will have heard of Leonard Cohen, which made the enthusiasm for the former all the more puzzling. Why on earth would the relatively independent New Zealand territory throw much of what it has in promoting a self-evidently flimsy act over one of the most bankable names on its roster?

Possibly the perceived problem is with “Hallelujah”, specifically the religiosity of the title, for a company that felt it had its fingers burned only a few years earlier with Bob Dylan’s trilogy of heavily symbolic fundamentalist Christian albums. Slow Train Coming, the first of the albums, racked up terrific sales, and, Dylan being Dylan, there wasn’t much need to underwrite it with massive promotion. Still, the lingering controversy surrounding it has at this point quenched any appetite at CBS to sully its hip reputation any further by pulling out the stops on a composition that sounds every bit as problematically religious.

Or even more religious. Dylan is terrific and all, but his grasp on religion may be overplayed. Dylan’s first fully religious effort, “I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine”, from the John Wesley Harding sessions, for example, has the American singer imagining he was one of those who martyred the Bishop of Hippo. In fact, Augustine died of thoroughly natural causes, albeit at a time when the Vandals were besieging his beloved city. No one “put him out to death” at all. Augustine died in his bed after a long sickness.

According to his friend the historian Possidius, the Algerian-born cleric’s last wish was for the penitential Psalms of David to be hung on his walls, the first line of the first one (Psalm 6) being Unto the end, in verses, a psalm for David, for the octave — and theologians have haggled for centuries over the definition of the mysterious ‘octave’ — which is to say, the ‘secret chord’ that the religiously better-read Cohen famously conjures with in the opening to “Hallelujah”.

There’s nothing terribly secret about its subsequent success. Seven years after it first appears, “Hallelujah” enjoys a surge of renewed attention after being covered by John Cale. Which in turn inspires another cover version by Jeff Buckley. Which in turn seems to inspire every last American Idol finalist, bah mitzvah candidate and drive-by mystic to take a crack at it.

Verily, as Cohen later famously observed, the heart goes on cooking like a shish kebab.

“Hallelujah” eventually becomes one of the most covered songs of all time. More than five million copies of it alone are sold in the compact disc format prior to 2008, with millions more downloaded in the digital format as well. It will in time be performed by almost 500 artists in various languages — even more cover versions than initial drafts of the song, which originally ran to scores of painfully pecked-out verses.

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure,” Dr Johnson observes. Much the same could be said of the back-story to “Hallelujah”, even if the colossal success of this particular composition ultimately renders it virtually unlistenable.

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Me, I continue to love the original version, mainly in one important respect that’s hardly ever remarked on: the luscious presence of Jennifer Warnes.

A lot of great music is the result of partnerships, even where it’s ostensibly identified with just the one person: Where would early Bowie have been without Mick Ronson, Lou Reed without John Cale, Ian Curtis absent the producer Martin Hannett, and so on? Well, not ‘so on’ really, because ultimately there aren’t all that many musical partnerships for the ages. Cohen’s, luckily for him, is one of them. The power of his most-enduring trilogy of LPs is significantly thanks to Warnes, who sustains, energizes and vocally defines these recordings that (arguably) mark his peak period, including The Future and I’m Your Man, but also, in particular, Various Positions, and especially what would become its best- known composition.

Warnes’ counterpart vocal performance always keeps me going back to that song. Singlehandedly she lifts the soft melodies, not only in the technical sense (which she pulls off handsomely) but more memorably in the way she sounds like a woman in love — with the singer, you assume — a fan of the first order for whom the specific musical needs of the composition constitute a distant part of her motivation for wanting it. Once again, as she does with her collection of cover versions, Warnes makes salvation seem erotic and the erotic seem like a salvation.

Book of Cohen by David Cohen (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $29.99) is available at Unity Books.


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